Tag Archives: Literary Dublin

Episode 15, Circe, i.e., A Dream Play!

For those drama lovers among you, fear not. You thought Ulysses was just a novel? In the great tradition of something for everyone literature, or, the smorgasborg that is Ulysses, we have, (two-thirds of the way through the novel, just as you thought you were through with the tricky bit, ie. Oxen of the Sun), a play!

And not just any play, a DREAM PLAY. For those, like me, who needed to refresh your university knowledge of Dream Plays, think Strindberg. Any Joyce fan worth their salt knows that Joyce had a hero-worship going for Ibsen. But less commonly know is the influence of Strindberg.

Really, Strindberg is less commonly known altogether. I discovered this on a recent visit to Stockholm when I spent an hour at the Strindberg Museum, where I startled a very polite and helpful young staff-member/volunteer (who can say if the place makes enough to pay someone, though one would suspect the impressive State of Sweden might just support the museum regardless of whether they get any visitors, ever), by coming to visit the museum.

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Strindberg’s Desk

I can understand how the ABBA Museum would be more popular, but still I’m betting the Ibsen Museum over in Oslo is getting more attention. Everyone knows A Doll’s House, but name one Strindberg play?

That’s just it. After Miss Julie, there’s A Dream Play. While I’m not a Nordic drama scholar, or any kind of scholar, I can say from the enthusiastic lay-person’s point of view that A Dream Play dramatizes the unconscious and also paved the way for expressionist and surrealist playwrights to come.

This seems exactly what Joyce is attempting in his play-within-a-novel. In my text this play takes up 134 pages. So, quick synopsis:

We find our two heroes in Night Town, the red light district. Bloom is separated from Stephen and finds a snack in a pork shop, after which, let the hallucinations begin! Bloom goes on public trial accused, among other things, of being a cuckold. This is the nightmare portion of the play. He then eventually finds Stephen at Bella Cohen’s brothel. Many hallucinations later, including images of Bloom briefly becoming a woman and the appearance of both Stephen’s dead mother and a lucky potato, the episode ends with Stephen being punched in the face by a British Army officer. The father-son relationship becomes complete as Bloom, caring for Stephen, sees him as an apparition of his dead son Rudy. How’s that for a six-sentence synopsis!

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The sanitized James Joyce Street, formerly Mabbot Street of the Monto District — the largest Red Light district of its time in Europe.

If it wasn’t clear before I’ll say it now — I did not enjoy Circe. I’m sure in many ways it is the most ambitious and experimental portion of Ulysses, and if we aren’t here for experimentation than what are we doing here? Still, perhaps it came too late in the novel for me to have patience with it. Maybe the whole exploration of Bloom’s virility was lost on me when he “became” a woman and this was a degradation. (I understand it was avant-garde for the male character to morph into a woman, but in the post-trump era we are living in I’m not so keen on indulging passages on the humiliations of “becoming” female. if we were reading the same passages of a character “becoming” black … well point taken and not trying to be PC-cop but just, Trump.)

All that said, I can see the importance in a book focused on the inner monologue delving beneath the surface of thought into the subconscious. Also, as I dove into the whole thing further myself, I learned that this chapter was written following the censorship of earlier episodes — namely Nausicaa — and allowed Joyce a reaction to this as well as the current war for independence. As the ever-trusty Declan Kiberd explains: “Because the episode was completed during the final phase of the Anglo-Irish war, he also offers an attack on the Anglicisation of the Irish life, via the brothels, the soldiers who patronised them, and the English songs which they made current. Joyce joked that ‘Circe’ was the most realistic episode of Ulysses, but he was stretching realism to the limit, as one way of responding to charges of obscenity.

Putting aside readability, there are other interesting aspects of the episode. The ability the dream-state allows for time to stand still in a novel organized around the clock is pretty facinating and also just practically why it is fun to read novels. In addition to Ibsen and Strindberg, Joyce was also obsessed (apparently) by Einstein’s newish theory of Relativity (1905), which is all explored in this episode.

So time is a perception which itself can slow down depending on the relation to the person observing it? Such was my experience with Circe.

 

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Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis — A Missed Encounter

Congratulations! At this stage of the book, you have passed the half-way mark and are solidly within the SECOND half of this monster.

If you are still with us, you will recall that at the very end of Episode 8, as part of the actual, existing “story” of Ulysses, Bloom ducked into the National Library in order to avoid running into the cursed Blazes Boylan and coming face-to-face with the reality, or soon to be reality, that he is a cuckold.

In Episode 9, the reader may find themselves surprised by the existence of continuity in the text as we return to the National Library, wherein we find Stephen, demonstrating his will to become a Young Artist. The careful reader may remark that the term Artist is a bit loose and/or one can assume a varying definition within the early part of the 20th Century as Stephen goes on to demonstrate his more or less loose ability at being an academic.  The entirety of this section is largely devoted to Stephens’ presentation of a theory related to his reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Now, the actual theory has some relevance on our own story (Ulysses/reading Ulysses) in two ways:

1. According to Stephen’s theory, Shakespeare envisions himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, rather than as the hero of the play, young Hamlet. In general, Stephen is at this stage, (and perhaps throughout the book given the recurring appearance of his own father) obsessed with the father-son relationship:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil. …The corpse of John Shakespeare does not walk the night. From hour to hour it rots and rots. He rests, disarmed of fatherhood, having devised that mystical estate upon his son. …Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and microcosm, upon the void. … Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

What the hell are you driving at?

I know. Shut up. Blast you! I have reasons.

This is all of interest to me due to my leanings toward Central Character # 2, Leopold Bloom, who is mostly absent in this section but who fulfills the role of father to Stephen, as we learn he has lost his own son many years earlier. Bloom is therefore haunted by the ghost of his own son, as Stephen is haunted by the ghost of his own father, both coming together in a tidy analogous theory here focused on William Shakespeare, the man.

2. In presenting his theory, this is the first and perhaps only formal time within Ulysses where we see Stephen striving toward his goal of becoming an intellectual.  We have to give him props for this, but at the same time, his theory is refuted at every turn by the collection of assembled scholars. Holes are poked through his theory left and right until Stephen himself admits he does not believe his own theory. He is further trampled upon as one Buck Mulligan enters into the scene to heap additional humiliation upon him, and at the same time remarks disparagingly upon Leopold Bloom (future substitute father), a stranger to Buck and Stephen at this stage, who he saw ogling (observing) the bottom of a statue out in the corridor.  In this way, the repeating themes of Stephen and Bloom sharing in the “outsider” status is brought forth once more (for the 98th time and we’re only half-way through the book!) and the connection between them is reinforced outside of the view of the pure reader.

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Part II: The Odyssey — A slight relief sets in as I realize I am not going to be stuck with sulky Stephen for the whole 700-something pages.

Episode 4, CalypsoIn which we get a break from Stephen, and are introduced to the much more engaging Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly. 

Oh Leopold, Leopold, where have you been for the past 47 pages? Episode 4 heralds in a brand new protagonist, Leopold Bloom, who I am immediately enamored of.  Call me a romantic, but the way he dotes on his cheating wife Molly is downright sweet.

The episode opens with Bloom going on his first of many errands of this interminably long day, to obtain some breakfast.  Right away he is distinguished from Stephen in his lust for life and embracing of it, and yet as we will find out over the subsequent 635 pages, there are also some parallels between the two.

We get our first glimpse of Dublin through Bloom’s eyes as he steps outside of his door, and yet curiously he is preoccupied with sensations of foreign places that he has never been to:

Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn, travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically. Walk along a strand, strange land, come to a city gate, sentry there, old ranker too, old Tweedy’s big moustaches leaning on a long kind of a spear. Wander through awned streets. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated cross-legged smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets. Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Wander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of the mosques along the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of these instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.

Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read: in the track of the sun. Sunburst on the titlepage. He smiled, pleasing himself.

And a short while later, Bloom’s mind wanders again to a far off locale as he considers and re-considers the prospect of a land purchase in Turkey, advertised in a flyer, “Nothing doing. Still an idea behind it.”

I’m not sure if this sort of reverie is meant to mark Bloom as the foreign — a Jew with immigrant origins, dressed in black no less — but very much connected to the soon to be newly independent Ireland, or serves some other purpose. For as much as Bloom is rooted in the current, complete with saucy wife, a profession, a child, a grilled Kidney for breakfast …  he is also shown to be a bit dreamy in these passages. He is of the same vein as Stephen. Despite being grounded, or rather immersed in, the messy to-do of life he is also caught up with his own regret and sadness.  These passages remind me of the gentle fantasy-making of far off places and romance of exploration that most of us have at some stage or another, whether it be to replace the current doldrums or to take our mind on an adventure.

Joyce himself was writing his masterpiece amid the turmoil of the 19-teens, at a time of world war and revolution, yet set placidly 14-years earlier as the momentum for what was to happen in his own country was taking up steam.    In a book that is so specific upon every comma and made-up word choice, I have to think this return to the past had some significance.

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